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Enriching yet humbling – Aussie surgeons transform lives of poor

When plastic surgeon James Leong flew into Western Samoa 10 years ago he was hoping to use his medical skills to make a difference – little knowing that the experience would change him as well.

Dr Leong worked for nine days in Western Samoa as part of a team of volunteers from Interplast Australia and New Zealand, a non-profit organisation that, in the past 30 years, has provided life-changing medical care for thousands of disadvantaged people across south-east Asia and the Pacific.

One of Interplast’s main aims is to provide treatment for those who have been diagnosed with congenital and acquired health care conditions.

On a typical mission, volunteer medical teams will treat people suffering cleft lips and palates, burn scar contractures, tumours, growths, as well as providing other reconstructive medical care.

Experienced reconstructive surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses and similar specialists are sent to various developing countries to perform the procedures.

As well as providing treatment, each medical procedure functions as a training opportunity for the local community, helping to develop the skills and knowledge of local practitioners to provide safer and more suitable treatment.

The scale of care provided is impressive.

In the past 30 years, more than 600 volunteers from Australia and New Zealand have provided 32,000 medical consultations and performed 21,000 surgical procedures.

Dr Leong, 46, first got involved with Interplast from a desire to participate in surgical life changing missions, and has remained involved. Since his first eye-opening trip in 2002, Dr Leong has undertaken a further nine life-changing medical projects in a number of locations including Western Samoa, Tonga, Lombok, Bali and the Philippines.

On each visit he has been able to transform lives as well as contribute to improving systems of health care.

These are the experiences he treasures, and which have changed him as a person.

Dr Leong describes his time working with underdeveloped countries as, “very enriching, fulfilling and yet humbling as what I get out of doing such trips is enormous. I rarely would let such a great opportunity go astray.”
While the experience is enriching, it is not without its difficulties.

Dr Leong said that working in an environment with limited resources can be very challenging.

Typically, there is no air conditioning, electricity supplies are erratic and unreliable, local sterilisation services are often rudimentary or non-existent, and providing even basic post-operative care can be very difficult.

However, Dr Leong said, “all this is compensated for by the willingness of the local medical staff who help us, and the chance and ability to change patient lives and rebuild their broken bodies.

“The joy, thankfulness and gratitude from the patients and the families after the surgical treatment is amazing, and often brings a tear to my eyes.”

He believes in the work Interplast does, and is proud of what it has been able to achieve.

To find out more about volunteering for Interplast, or supporting its work, visit: http://www.interplast.org.au/

Sanja Novakovic

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